Whidbey Islanders’ frustrations were evident last week when David Moseley, head of the Ferries Division of the Department of Transportation, visited Freeland.
It’s been more than 10 years since voters revolted against the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. Someone driving a clunker might have paid $25 a year, while the owner of a new Mercedes might be dinged $500 or more. This graduated form of tax was replaced by a flat rate of $30 per vehicle. The result was a financial disaster for the ferry system, which was heavily dependent on the MVET.
Since then, the DOT has transferred more than $1 billion from highways to the ferries to keep the system operating, but that doesn’t permanently fix the ferries’ capital or operating budgets, while hurting the budget for highways and bridges.
Ferry users on Whidbey complained of late sailings, non-sailings, excessive fares and even rude ferry employees, which was a bit of a stretch. Dealing with an angry public, an employee might occasionally be less than polite; by and large our ferry workers are doing a fine job with less pay and fewer coworkers than they once enjoyed. The solution is not to take more out of the wallets of ferry employees.
Moseley pitched a new “transportation package” that is being negotiated in the weeks leading up to convening of the Legislature in January. While vague, this package would obviously have to include new taxes to fully man the ferries, keep the boats and terminals shipshape, and build new terminals where necessary, particularly in Mukilteo.
The ferry system is not a liability to Washingtonians. It provides access to jobs and shopping for thousands of people living on Puget Sound islands. It attracts hundreds of thousand of tourists who are thrilled by a boat ride and spend their money on Whidbey Island, the San Juans and the other islands served by the ferries.
Judging the ferries by their operating costs is entirely inappropriate. Add up the benefits they provide the citizens of this state and they are worth far more than the money they cost us.
We need more tax revenue to revive the ferry system. Add a penny or two to the gas tax; jack up the MVET again; whatever it takes to sustain a viable and growing ferry system. It will help the economy while reviving one of our state’s most necessary and unique attractions.